Sunday, April 21, 2013

Op/ed article: "If Only I Were The Taffy Man"

Yet another from the "Should've done this a long time ago" file. The high school gets the English edition of the  Korea Joongang Daily and I read it every day. This article warrants posting because it discusses the difficulties in romanizing Korean into English. Romanization refers to taking another script like, say, Korean, and writing the words in the Roman script. 

As the writer Peter M Beck explains,
Korean is one of the toughest languages in the world for native English speakers to learn, but Koreans make it even more difficult by writing their names a seemingly infinite variety of ways in English. In China and Japan, there is essentially one way to write names in English, but for every Korean name, there is at least 20.
The first source of variation is in the format of the name. Some Koreans follow the Japanese rule of reversing the order of their names to conform to the West. Chi-guk Kim may sound better than Kim Chi-guk, but reversing the order sounds unnatural and is unnecessary. Others prefer to follow the Chinese convention of putting the last name first, but having their first name as one word. This makes names more difficult to pronounce. Still others put a comma between their last name and first name, but this makes their names look like part of a mailing list.  
The most confusing way to write one’s name is to write it as three separate, capitalized words. The Washington Post follows this convention, which once led former U.S. Senator Jesse Helms to refer to Kim Jong Il as “Kim Jong, the second.” Fortunately, The New York Times switched to the format I prefer, which is the last name followed by a hyphenated first name, with the second part written lowercase (Kim Chi-guk). [Emphasis mine] 

Like the Joonang Daily and the New York Times, I employ the last name + hyphenated first name formula because it makes names easier to pronounce and because it sounds more natural to me. Most of my students write their names like this as well. 

He continues,
Of course, Koreans are far more creative when it comes to transliterating their names into English. How can a foreigner be expected to know that Lee, Rhee and Yi are one and the same names in Korean? Some Koreans are more creative than others. Every week or two I see a spelling I have never seen before. 
Ironically, even though hangul, the Korean alphabet, has fewer characters than the English alphabet, Korean is difficult to transliterate into English, especially without using markings that require special software. I don’t have a magic solution or preference, but I do have a simple request: Be consistent! 
I've encountered this firsthand. The names Lee, Rhee, and Yi all come from the Korean character 이, which is pronounced like the letter E. Interesting like, 리 is pronounced "Rhee" or "Lee," but I've yet to encounter anyone with this last name.

The names Woo, Wook, and Woong are all similar, for they look like this: 우, 욱, 웅. The 우 character's pronounced "oo". Those three w-sounds don't actually exist in Korean, but the w- gets added to the names or words because apparently "oo" sounds to strange to Western ears. Maybe it looks better in print? Woongjin's a company that makes, among other things, water coolers; I suppose Woongjin looks better than Oongjin.

I suppose that with students' names, it comes down to personal preference. 우 features in plenty of Korean words and names and it gets romanized to the letter U. Still, "u" can be pronounced "oo," so I've students that will write part of their name as Jun or Joon. Despite my predilection for consistency, using the double O does make the name easily to pronounce because Jun can sound like "J-uh-n" to foreign ears.

The name Young's another one because it can be romanized as Yeong. And while Yeong is technically correct, Young's probably more common and again, easier on Western ears.

Beck goes on to talk of some other issues in Korea, but the big focus of the article's about the Korean language and how it gets romanized. It should help people understand how the language works.

[If anyone out there knows more information, please write in. If I'm wrong, correct me!]

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